Friday, March 16, 2012

Jay Whittaker

Posted By on March 16, 2012, 10:00 AM

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Go back and look at many of the stand-up-comedian interviews we've done in the past year, and one of the more frequent names you'll see pop up is Jay Whittaker. --- While the name might not immediately come to mind, Whittaker is one of the most respected and under-appreciated comedians working the SLC comedy circuit as a workhorse talent. Give the man any night of the week and he can help turn a quiet room around with nothing more than a smile and honest observation. Today, we chat with Whittaker about getting into comedy and his career, plus a few extra thoughts on the local stand-up scene.



Jay Whittaker

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Gavin: Hey, Jay. First thing, tell us a bit about yourself.



Jay: Well, I’m a 28-years-young comic-book reader and rice pilaf-loving, over-caffeinated single dad originally from Los Angeles, California, born and raised in Inglewood as a kid until I moved out in junior high to the suburbs of Orange County to a quiet town called Mission Viejo. After I graduated high school  -- somehow with honors -- I went on to join the United States Air Force to see the world, and that world is Utah.



Gavin: What first got you interested in stand-up comedy, and who were some of your favorite comedians growing up?



Jay: What first got me into comedy was just my family. My father was a banker and also worked as promoter back in the late '80s, early '90s in L.A., and he would take me with him to some of the venues where I would get a chance to see live performances of singers, dancers, and comedians. That was what planted the seed. From there, I would always watch a lot of stand-up on Comedy Central, HBO, Def Comedy Jam and sketches on Saturday Night Live. I loved watching comedians like Mark Curry, Eddie Griffin, Damon Wayans, Dennis Miller, Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and George Carlin.

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Gavin: What officially brought on the decision for you to attempt it as a career?



Jay: Well, what brought me into comedy was tragedy, actually. My good friend from Mission Viejo, Robert Sickles, who I’ve known since high school football and track and field, was tragically killed on 1/1/11. We always used to joke about how old we are getting, but when I went to his memorial, I realized how life is short, and pondered my goals and aspirations. Have I accomplished them yet? That’s when I remembered my dream of trying stand-up comedy. Robert had always recommended I give it a shot, so I just kinda thought it over until one of my closest friends, Edwin Jackson aka DJ E-Flexx, had an extra ticket to see Kevin Hart at Abravanel Hall and invited me to tag along. I went and laughed my ass off; his performance was hilarious and inspiring, which left me with a sense of purpose that I just knew what I had to do. I began reaching out my network through my friends and research. A good friend of mine, Michelle Howell, informed me that Wiseguys at Trolley Square an ope- mic night  -- Wednesdays at 7 p.m. --and the whole idea was to “just watch” and soak up the atmosphere. I remember I had just come from work and I looked like I walked off The Cosby Show, with a geeky sweater and purple button-up. Anywho, I watched a few comics go up and felt, "Hell, I can do this"! I then approached the host for the night, comedian Timm Thorn, and asked him if I could get up. I did a not good, but not bad, three-minute off-the-cuff set about my Cosby sweater, cougars, and Facebook. Timm said I did well and to keep coming back. After a while I was HOOKED -- I was doing open mic at one point four times a week at Johnny’s On Second, Mo’s Neighborhood Grill, K-Town Komedy, The Complex, and Wiseguys. Anywhere I could get on and do some time I was there. Sometimes I would go even if I had NOTHING. I would just go to be around the scene and learn from the other more experienced comedians.



Gavin: How was it for you breaking into the local lineups and getting gigs?



Jay: I can honestly say it was just perfect timing and some damn good, supportive friends and coworkers. I started stand-up in February 2011 and the timeline just seemed to fall into place. I began writing as much material as I could and entered in the Wiseguys March Madness Competition and placed second overall. After that, I was then approached by management about opening on weekends. My first two gigs were with Marcus and Kiley Cook. Both went well and I went on to become one of Marcus’ regular openers and sell Kiley a washer and dryer. After a few months of opening for Marcus and comedian Guy Seidel, I began to progress more and more and eventually tried out for the 2011 Rocky Mountain Laugh-Off and had a lot of fun competing and seeing where I stood with some of our best locals and other traveling comedians from across the United States. I ended up placing in the Top 10, which was nice, and then came more shows.

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Gavin: When you first started out, what were some of the lessons you learned about performing?



Jay: One of the first lessons I learned is that you have to BE PREPARED. If they ask for five minutes of material, show up with 10. If they want 10, show up with 20. If they want 20, show up with 40. That way you are always, ALWAYS prepared! Because you never know when a set will go wrong or when you may need to stretch and do more time. I also learned how to plan a set. Some of the best advice I received was to know what you plan to open with and what you plan to close with, and don’t be afraid to walk off stage early at open mic when you get a huge laugh. A lot of comics will try to make the most of their time and may lose an audience. Always leave them wanting more.



Gavin: What's it like for you personally coming up with material and deciding what works and doesn't?



Jay: For me, I do the best I can to just make mental or written notes of just my daily interactions. Conversations with my co-workers, spending time with son, people watching ... it’s all there, you just have to pay attention to the little things. It’s those little things that make the big laughs. Then I may test material or ideas out naturally in conversation at work or with my friends when I play cards. That’s really where it started, at the poker table just jaw-jackin and snappin' back and forth with insults and stories about sucking at love and winning in life.

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Gavin: How is it for you interacting with other local comedians, both as friends and competitors?



Jay: Locally, there is a lot of love in SLC as comics go. We all hang out after shows, bounce ideas off of each other. It’s like one big fraternity full of camaraderie, spirit ... and dick jokes. We all hang around each other and have friendly debates and discussions about “the industry” and “what kind of comic we want to be, but there is definitely friendly competition and it's what fuels us all to just kill a set and hype up the crowd.



Gavin: A lot of your set touches on race, which in itself is a touchy subject in Utah -- probably more for the time being with Ackerman's BYU video. How is it playing to local crowds with that material and what kind of responses do you get from it?



Jay: Good question. I honestly had to take my time with this question. Primarily that I try not to do too much material on race, but sometimes I feel compelled. I don’t want to be known as a guy who does “black comedy,” or “white People do this, black people do that” material because in Utah where it’s SOOOOOOOO diverse it does make people uneasy, but I’m still finding my voice, and being a comic is about catering and adapting to your audience while still being yourself. Plus I feel there’s a lot of pressure being one of the few black comics based out of Utah. I don’t want to be up onstage making my culture look bad or perpetuate negative stereotypes even more. One of the best compliments I received was when I opened for the Sklar Brothers at Wiseguys/West Valley and three black people from New Jersey who happened to be in town on business watched my set and approached me after the show and thanked me for “reppin’ and holdin’ it down.” Those few words went a long way. Let’s face it, though. It’s well known there’s not many of us out here. Utah’s diversity is still on the rise -- African-Americans make up one tenth of one percent of Utah population; Google it! So when I have that mic in my hands, I don’t want to get onstage and ruin it for us 29,000 who live here and have to answer uncomfortable questions regarding the comedian Dave Ackerman’s BYU video. I know Dave and have done a couple shows with him in the past and he is a genuine great guy and a great comic. I feel that if he had done the video without the blackface he wouldn’t have taken so much heat, but it is what it is.

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Gavin: Are there any plans down the road for you to tour, or are you sticking to home for now?



Jay: I am gearing up for the road, just got to save the travel money. Hell, if I could I’d be traveling as much as possible just soaking it up. I’ve only been to Wyoming and Idaho for a few shows and will be heading up to Montana with Guy for a few nights to rock some shows, so that will a be an interesting development. With eight years in the Air Force, I love to travel and see new sights, meet new people and see America, ya know. Kinda like that Man Vs. Food guy minus the weight gain because according to my friends and family, I eat like a bitch.



Gavin: Going local for a bit, what's your take on the stand-up scene, both good and bad?



Jay: The SLC Comedy scene is just full of opportunity. There are so many places you get onstage and work out material. I feel that’s the best thing out here. I know back home in L.A., it’s hard to find places that you get up, let alone have an audience present. It's growing as Utah is growing. With the 2nd annual Salt Lake Comedy Festival coming up in June, I believe you’ll start to see stand-up becoming more and more popular and prominent here. I remember when I had the chance to open up for one of my favorite comedians, the late, great Patrice O’Neal, in June 2011 for his first and, unfortunately, last visit to Utah. He really enjoyed his time here and was a little surprised that we had such a great scene here. Plus the crowds out here are just awesome; they are smart and just love to get out and see live comedy. Wiseguys is bringing in professional, touring comedians for affordable ticket prices at $10-25 where it would normally be $30-60 in any other major city. So they are really getting a treat when they come to show.

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Gavin: Is there anything you think could be done to make it more prominent?



Jay: SLC comedy will become prominent as our local comics continue to excel and headline our own shows. I personally feel like our scene is extremely talented and overflowing with big-time potential.



Gavin: Aside from yourself, who are some of your favorites you like to check out around town?



Jay: Well, there’s just so many to name, but my personal favorites include Key Lewis, he’s just a fun guy to watch. Marcus and Kiley Cook were the first to let me open for them; they are always a great show to watch. Spencer King and Jon Fiestmann are always on point and ready to go onstage at any given time. Andy Gold with his great writing and his smooth, robust delivery. Cody Eden, Levi Rounds, Greg Orme, Christian Pieper and Guy Seidel are my favorites to watch rant because they all can get caught in an off-the cuff rant about Alf or customer service and it will make you just laugh your ass off. Jacob Leigh, Jared Shipley, Marty Archibald and Manuel Rodriguez always me make me laugh at the awkwardly awesome and the unexpected. I know I’m missing some names and I’m going toget  punched in the trachea from someone, but when I say Salt Lake’s comedy scene is FULL of talent, I mean it. Come check us all out and you’ll see!

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Gavin: What are your thoughts on the clubs that provide comedians a forum to perform, and the work they do to help bring in audiences?



Jay: There’s plenty of venues that are out there, but the main locales you’ll find me at is Comedy Roadkill at The Complex run by Ben Fuller, and Wiseguys, of course, run by Keith Stubbs. There’s definitely a lot of work being put in to bring larger names out here for both mainstream and alternative comedy. It's great for us comics to have all these places for us to get onstage because stand-up comedy is really on the upswing again. Movies aren’t as a good anymore and the average customer wants to see something affordable, original and organic. You’re more likely to spend more at the movies on popcorn and optometrist visits from all the 3-D glasses destroying your retinas, so the alternative  -- and safest route for your eyes -- is to come to a comedy show.



Gavin: What's your opinion of national stand-up comedians coming through town and what that does for the local scene?



Jay: Well, I just did four shows at Wiseguys West Valley over the first weekend of March with comedian Jeff Dye from NBC’s Last Comic Standing and he was just TRULY excited to be here. I remember I did a show with Kevin Brown aka “DotCom” from 30 Rock who just loved the crowds out here. A lot of the upcoming shows at Wiseguys will definitely draw large audiences.

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Gavin: What can we expect from you over the rest of the year and going into next?



Jay: The rest of the year I plan to get on as many shows as I possibly can and really work on more new material. I want to start participating in nationwide comedy festivals and also working in theater, music and TV. I love hosting events, as well -- that’s where I feel I get to branch out and meet new audiences.



Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?



Jay: I have no headline shows set yet, but I was looking at doing another "One Night Only" show at Wiseguys Trolley Square in June. I’ve recently been tasked to host the 1st Annual Utah Underground Hip-Hop Awards at Brewvies Theater May 16, and I know that will a great be fun show because there is so much talent in the Wasatch area. For now, the best way is to stay in the loop with me is on Facebook and Twitter. I use those sites and my Tumblr blog The Token Chronicles for show updates, videos, music, and random ramblings.





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